By JESSE BURKHARDT
The city of White Salmon has been under a "de facto" water moratorium since December 2005 -- but now it has become official.
On the evening of May 20, in an unexpected development, the White Salmon City Council approved an emergency water moratorium ordinance. With a 4-1 vote, the council backed a request from the city's attorney, Ken Woodrich, who pointed out that the city had never formally passed a moratorium on water hookups.
Woodrich explained that the action was needed in the wake of a May 6 letter signed by Washington's Department of Health and Department of Ecology, in which the agencies warned the city that they were premature in discussing providing new water connections.
"As the city's attorney, the ramifications of the letter give me grave concern that we have not gone through a true moratorium process where we simply say, `no more connections or additions to the waiting list,'" Woodrich explained to the council members. "A waiting list has never been in an ordinance. I think it's important to do that now."
An excerpt from the ordinance: "The White Salmon City Council finds that city's ability to plan for utility service and urban growth will be jeopardized unless this moratorium is authorized, and the White Salmon City Council finds that the authorization of this moratorium is necessary to protect the health, welfare, safety, and future economic viability of the city ... a six-month moratorium is hereby imposed on accepting new requests for water connection ... the moratorium may be extended for one or more additional six-month periods in the event a work plan or further study determines that such extension is necessary ..."
Council member Richard Marx questioned the need for the ordinance, contending that the city had already imposed a water moratorium.
Woodrich responded by explaining that was not the case.
"Apparently there is no ordinance there. By state statute, a moratorium needs to be done by ordinance," Woodrich said. "We need a moratorium in place and need it now."
In late 2005, then-Public Works Director Wil Keyser was quoted as telling the City Council members that the city had put a moratorium into place.
"There is no question there will be no growth. There will be a moratorium on that," Keyser advised the council then. "We've had a self-imposed moratorium. As of Dec. 1 (2005), we have not approved any new water hookups."
However, the moratorium was apparently imposed administratively, as no account of the council formally approving a water moratorium could be found in the city's records.
"We found a draft, but the ordinance was never ratified," said Mayor David Poucher.
Marx questioned why the city needed a moratorium in any case.
"We have 1,744 connections to the system. We've been approved for that by the Department of Health since 2006. All this jibber-jabber is completely bogus," Marx said.
Woodrich said he was aware of the implications of imposing a formal moratorium at a time citizens are hopeful that the city's water shortage issues are about to be resolved.
"I don't take it lightly," Woodrich said. "It's politically difficult, but in the face of that letter from the Department of Health, my recommendation is we do this."
Woodrich said if conditions changed, the council could lift the moratorium at any time.
The state of Washington allows the city to implement a water moratorium on an emergency basis, but within 60 days there has to be a public hearing.
That hearing was set for June 17.
"We're not removing the waiting list. It will sit in stasis until we figure out what to do with it if connections become available," he said. "We need to figure out a fair way to do a waiting list and how to lift the moratorium. That's what everybody wants."
Council member Brad Roberts said he did not like the idea of putting a formal moratorium on the city, but said he understood the need for doing so.
"The last thing I ever wanted to do is approve a moratorium. But with your recommendation I will make a motion to place a moratorium on water hookups," Roberts said.
The council voted 4-1 to approve the moratorium, with Marx voting against the measure.
"The city already was under the full practice of a moratorium, in all reality," Marx said. "The reason the Department of Health said we have no more approved connections remaining is because Mike Wellman reported to the DOH that there are 1,744 active service connections. To my knowledge, this is not true. The audit on the system showed that there are only 1,533 total."
Woodrich said the moratorium went into effect as soon as it was approved.
"This is adopted as an emergency," he said. We don't want an immediate rush to get on the waiting list. I can't tell you how long the moratorium will last -- it may be short, I don't know."
Marx slammed the passage of the moratorium ordinance on an "emergency" basis.
"This is the typical way that all of the dozen emergencies in the last six years have been done," said Marx. "It's more like some brainwashing technique."
Mayor Poucher said formal approval of the moratorium was long overdue.
"We felt we were boxed into a corner with the letter from the DOE and DOH," Poucher explained. "The city should have done this in previous years. I wish the previous councils and mayor had taken these things on."